Can one film change the way we feel about the ocean? Jaws certainly did. You need only sing the first two notes of John Williams’ theme to make any would-be ocean swimmer reassess their choices.
But since Jaws’ release in 1975, few movies have made viewers want to get back into the water, or inspired as much oceanic wonder as Avatar: The Way of Water. And what constitutes the type of music that accompanies this sense of big blue wonder is something we can measure.
Ocean-based films have a sound: Mysterious and Inspirational
Based on our analysis of popular ocean-based movies (and a couple of documentaries), we can see that there’s a sound that appears across a lot of ocean-based material. Critically, two moods commonly appear: Mysterious and Inspiring (blue and mustard, in our chart).
But how does Avatar: The Way of Water fit into the wider sound world of oceanic films? Pretty perfectly, it turns out.
We can’t ignore that The Way of Water is most similar in mood make-up to the first Avatar film, scored by the late James Horner. Oddly enough, this is a mark of a job well done by Horner’s successor Simon Franglen whose task was to keep the heritage of James’ original score, even though 90 per cent of the new Avatar’s music is original.
All the same, if we have to find another production with the next most similar mood make-up, we’d have to single out Blue Planet 2. Even though there are fewer Dark moods in David Attenborough’s Hans Zimmer-scored documentary soundtrack, the data shows marked mood similarities.
The correlation with Blue Planet 2 may not surprise viewers of Avatar: The Way of Water. The film spends much of its runtime immersing the audience in the fictional fauna-filled ocean of Pandora. Consequently, large parts feel more like a nature documentary than a movie. And this is instrumental in making viewers feel at home in the ocean rather than feeling pitted against it or consumed by it, as is the trope in sea-based movies. Just think Underwater, Das Boot, Sphere, and Black Sea. Yeah. No, thanks.
Another interesting point about the mood breakdown across multiple films is how the Dark tags indicate how much peril the ocean represents on screen. In Avatar 2, this (green) metric is relatively low, especially compared to Waterworld and The Abyss. Meanwhile, those scores with fewer Dark moods include My Octopus Teacher and Blue Planet 2, which present the ocean as a beautiful, inviting habitat.
Can we be sure that high numbers of Inspiring and Mysterious tags aren’t just a quirk of all film music?
To test this assertion, we compared these watery scores to the Dune score. On the face of it, these are similar. Local tribe in tune with a hostile environment, financially-driven, technologically superior bad guys, a tedious white savior. Even though Mysterious and Inspiring moods feature heavily, Dark is the score’s top mood, giving the film a substantially different feel.
Lower energy is key
Energy is another major factor when looking at aquatic soundtracks. Composer Simon Franglen specifically opted for a gentler sonic palette for The Way of Water.
The first Avatar leant on more aggressive vocal textures and higher energy percussion employing gamelans to represent the forestry Omatikaya clan. However, the water-dwelling Metkayina clan of the second film is accompanied by softer wood and bamboo instruments and more siren-like choral vocals.
This is all measurable in the data.
The softer rhythmic parts equate to Low and very Low energy track tags – which make up a large part of the score. Meanwhile, there’s a good energy spread with some High and Very High energy tracks for the battle and chase scenes.
The outcome of having this large number of low-energy tracks is that The Way of Water sits more comfortably (at least in terms of energy) alongside other water-based film soundtracks. And the production that has the most similar energy spread is again Blue Planet 2.
Most deep-sea movies seek to concern you with sinister creatures that lurk beneath, but James Cameron has taken the opposite approach and channelled David Attenborough to create a feature that both visually and sonically invites you into the world of water.
Think we’ve missed something in the data? Or maybe you want to learn more about Musiio by SoundCloud’s music reports, AI tagging and audio reference search? Reach out on Linkedin or Twitter, shoot us a message using our contact form or email firstname.lastname@example.org.